Court issues ruling, Senate to swear in Democrat winner

Brewster

HARRISBURG — The state Senate will convene Wednesday to swear-in state Sen. James Brewster, a day after a federal judge rejected a bid by his opponent to get the election results overturned due a dispute over the counting of 331 mail-in ballots.

Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman, R-Centre County, announced the plans to seat Brewster in a short statement released Tuesday afternoon.

Corman had been at the center of a messy standoff last week when Senate Republicans moved to block Brewster from taking the oath of office due to a challenge by Republican candidate Nicole Ziccarelli. At the time, Senate Republicans voted to strip Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of his powers as presiding officer of the Senate for the day after Fetterman indicated that Brewster should be allowed to take the oath of office with the rest of the senators who’d won in the November election.

U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan rejected the Republican challenger’s argument that Allegheny County was not justified in counting mail-in ballots without a handwritten date.

In his decision Ranjan said he had a “fundamental disagreement” with the way the Republicans were trying to interpret the state Supreme Court’s decision.

“The Court finds that the Supreme Court expressly held that the undated ballots at issue remain valid,” Ranjan wrote in an opinion released Tuesday morning. “Ms. Ziccarelli’s federal constitutional claims all depend on the invalidity of the ballots under state law, those claims necessarily fail on the merits,” he said.

Ranjan said that even if the court were to consider whether Westmoreland County, which didn’t count similar ballots, and Allegheny County had employed unequal practices, refusing to count the Allegheny County votes would not be a viable solution.

“In this case, there was no dispute of facts. There were no allegations of fraud. Instead, we had voters in Allegheny County and Westmoreland counties who made the same mistake on their mail-in ballots being treated differently,” Corman said. Senate Republicans believe that considering this obvious deficit, Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar was premature in certifying the election. By delaying the swearing-in of a senator, we took the time” to get Ranjan’s ruling before considering the election settled, he said.

Changes to election law made after voters cast their ballot are dangerous because it may create the appearance that partisan-tinkering is being used to sway the election results, attorneys for House and Senate Republicans had argued in an brief filed in support of Ziccarelli’s lawsuit. The move by Allegheny County, coupled with the state Supreme Court’s decision to allow the votes to be counted, did just that, Zachary Wallen, an attorney representing the Republican lawmakers wrote in the legal filing.

Prior to Corman’s announcement, Democrats had immediately called for Brewster to be seated based on the ruling.

Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny County, said that based on the Tuesday court decision, Brewster has “been declared the winner more times and in more ways than should be necessary, but I believe that the matter is now unequivocally settled.”

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